Sex as a weapon

Prominent movie critics across the country have joined hands in ritual public display of their admiration for Oklahoma-born photographer Larry Clark's unrated feature debut Kids. This, after all, is the film that Mickey The Mouse refused to release under His newly acquired Miramax label, forcing the filmmakers to form their own distribution company; made everyone rave at Sundance even while Grand Jury members gave their prize to the cheerful, lukewarm The Brothers McMullen; and risked the commercially damning disapproval of the MPAA when Clark would slice nary a frame from his own cut.

Kids, in other words, is opening in theaters nationwide almost solely on its reputation for verbal and visual explicitness. Director Clark, who made his name 24 years ago with a searing, supple collection of photographs of street kids and blue-collar adolescents called Tulsa, makes his maiden cinematic voyage debut with the same eye for grocery-line provocation you'd expect from a man who earned his reputation with single images.

Working from a script by 20-year-old high school dropout Harmony Korine, Larry Clark wanted to document the language, loves, and losses of inner-city adolescents getting off on adult vices. You'd expect any such venture to contain a hefty amount of profanity, sex, and drug use, and the filmmakers disappoint us in none of those categories. Although he avoided using any outright nudity among his youthful performers, Clark clearly relishes the Dionysian exploits around which he hovers--the film anti-climaxes with an excruciatingly slow sex scene between two zonked-out friends, which can be taken either as moral lesson or soft-core pornography, depending on your perspective.

Problem is, Clark the veteran, award-winning photographer exists on an entirely different plane than Clark the debut director, who seems to believe that a baby's face cussing and drinking and smooching like a sailor's represents a revolutionary cinematic image in itself. Kids was manufactured to shock as many people as possible, with Clarke hiding behind the familiar "I-just-tells-it-like-I-sees-it" excuse that's the last resort of most filmmakers who have a strong idea but don't know how to develop it.

In fact, the movie is as moralistic and didactic as any public service announcement against venereal disease, with a few souped-up, affectionless rolls on the couch shot by a hand-held camera to prove what you're watching isn't just a movie--it's the way things are. Before half the show is over, you feel like you've been watching an Afterschool Special directed by debut filmmaker Larry Flynt.

Although there are at least a couple dozen characters featured in Kids, many of them cast direct from the parks and playgrounds of New York City, Larry Clark focuses our attention on just three: Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), a guy with a mouthful of crooked teeth whose favorite mumbled introduction to potential male friends is "What kind of bitches you like to fuck?"; Casper (Justin Pierce), whose electric shock of brown hair seems activated by his love for beer and dope; and Jennie (Chloe Sevigny), a sad-eyed, short-haired girl who has just lost her virginity to Telly.

Casper and Telly are best friends the camera follows from doorstep to abandoned apartment to park to basketball court in one 24-hour period. Telly is a gawky, merciless braggart whose specialty is deflowering young virgins. It is, for him, a gesture toward posterity made at a moment in his life when he can't possibly conceive how temporary everything is: "That's one thing they can't take away from you," he snickers to Casper. "You're always the first guy."

In the case of Jennie, her First Guy has robbed her of something she can never recover--a long-term future. Jennie discovers by accident she is HIV-positive, and sets out on a journey through neighborhood haunts to find Telly and confront him with the information.

That's the plot of Kids, propped up on a series of Henry Jaglom-ish conversation sequences that feature both young men and young women rhapsodizing and bitching with teeth-gritted enthusiasm about sex. Although screenwriter Korine's dialogue was obviously cherished for its rawness, what Clark pursues onscreen is the distilled, predatory essence of pubescent hormones. Between the two of them, they fabricate a cast of hedonistic teenagers draped in verit costumes who carry contemporary social dilemmas like placards but never quite dramatize them.

These youngsters think, talk, and act so often with their carnal instincts out front, they actually come off as more informed--albeit in a very crude way--than your average adult. Jennie and her best friends not only know where to go for free birth control and AIDS tests, they rush off there whenever they suspect trouble. Telly and Casper and their friends are fully aware of the HIV virus, how it's spread, and what they can do to decrease the likelihood of acquiring it. They just don't care.  

You can argue that this is precisely what Kids tries to say--in an American culture steered by messages from the media, kids pick and choose what they want to hear according to their own sense of youthful invincibility. Clark makes that point, but he never really drives it home with canny cinematic decision-making because he's too busy wallowing in the "authenticity" of his performers, whose obvious inexperience distracts us even more than a group of professional actors trained to improvise would.

Pretty soon, the periodic eruptions of reprehensible behavior--a mob of angry kids kicking and beating a man with skateboards, say, or Casper dipping a fresh tampon into fruit juice, then sucking it dry--remind you of '50s shlockmeister William Castle, who threw real skeletons at B-movie ticketbuyers and vibrated their seats during scary moments. Clark is just as clumsy with his shock-the-unscrubbed-masses gimmickry, but more condescending and not nearly as honest.

Can anyone who watches TV news even a couple times a week doubt that there are too many lost children out there, dabbling in experiences that will inevitably lead to their premature destruction? It's a terrible reality that Clark is happy to jump on and ride for all it's worth, not so much out of concern for making a good movie as scoring easy hits in a conservative era.

Once you figure out it's trying to hoodwink you, Kids does offer some very modest pleasures. Clark's nicest accomplishment here reflects his experience as a still portraitist. The young actors handpicked by the director are an aesthetically intriguing mosaic of pug noses, bubble lips, wet eyes, and gangly arms and legs. Just like the photographer Bruce Weber did with his documentaries Let's Get Lost and Broken Noses, Larry Clark turns Kids into a pop-up book of favorite visual obsessions. You may not come away with the profound experience of a truly thoughtful movie, but you will have taken a colorful stroll through one man's artistic grocery list.

French-Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand also has a background in reconstructing reality--he started off in the early '60s as an award-winning director of documentary shorts. It was another 23 years before he became a world cinema favorite with The Decline of the American Empire, a mordant movie cousin of Return of the Secaucus Seven with the generational baggage unloaded and the libidos turned to full throttle.

He attempted to turn literary with his next feature Jesus of Montreal (1989), which stumbled rather ham-fistedly through some broad comparisons between contemporary commercialism and personal salvation. Still, the movie drew a huge international audience, and cemented Arcand's reputation as a filmmaker who loved eccentric characters, who positioned all the lights and mikes and camera angles and dialogue around the actors so their performances could be united with his somber vision.

That same weird blend of misanthropy and hope fires Arcand's latest, Love and Human Remains, but this is by far his grimmest peek into the politics of betrayal. In the unspecified, cement-coated city Arcand imagines, death lurks close behind every romantic overture, whether it be in the form of a rapist-serial killer, whose exploits run as a counternarrative to the protagonists', or an incurable, fatal virus that never leaves anyone's thoughts.

David (Thomas Gibson) is a handsome no-account who returns after a mysterious absence to the city where he was raised. A former child actor, he now waits tables, drinks beer, cruises the nightclubs for easy sex with men, and attempts to advise on the troubled love life of his roommate Candy, an ex-lover (Ruth Marshall) who's desperate for a committed relationship. She finds it after a one-night experiment with a lesbian schoolteacher (Joanne Vannicola), but then must decide between her and a gallant bartender (Rick Roberts).

Meanwhile, the desperately lonely David begins his own search for a faithful lover under an umbrella of callous sarcasm. His dear friend Benita (Mia Kirshner), a psychic hooker who specializes in bondage fantasies, nudges him into a rocky flirtation instigated by a 17 year-old busboy (Matthew Ferguson). They ply the beautiful boy with heroin, then Benita massages his forehead and channels the electric shock of all his unexpressed sexual desires.

Once a rampaging murderer is introduced to cast suspicion on every character, the film alienates all those who're expecting a reasonable emotional payoff for their attention. There are no highs and lows here, only a subtly building sense of trepidation eased by the witty intelligence of the characters. When the killer is unmasked, his identity matters much less than the long shadow of foreboding his myth casts over everyone involved.

Love and Human Remains is a kaleidoscope of merging, morphing sexual identities, illuminated by the determination of Arcand and cinematographer Paul Sarossy to locate the bleak core of these entanglements. Rarely does a character offer a joke along with a smile, and even rarer are the scenes where any decision proves satisfying. What motivates everyone is fear--of being alone, of discovering themselves, of dying.  

No one would ever mistake the people in this film as real, but Denys Arcand has enough confidence to take the unruly, at times fantastic material and shape it into a plain-spoken allegory of shifting personal allegiances. Although not everyone will appreciate the variety of relationships in Love and Human Remains, anyone who patiently submits to its gradual spell should leave the theater feeling he or she's glimpsed true love in its most unglamorous form--the impulse for companionship that binds all of us in universal dependency.

Kids. Excalibur Films. Leo Fitzpatrick, Justin Pierce, Chloe Sevigny. Written by Harmony Korine. Directed by Larry Clark. Opens August 25.

Love and Human Remains. Sony Pictures Classics. Thomas Gibson, Ruth Marshall, Matthew Ferguson. Written by Brad Fraser, based on his play. Directed by Denys Arcand. Opens September 1.

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